July is our month dedicated to celebrating freedom; it’s when school kids and teachers are on break, when a significant part of the population chooses to take a vacation, often to one of our national parks to see our landmarks.
It’s the Fourth of July, when President John Adams declared that the commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”
He forgot the watermelon, barbecue, and beer, but as a renowned quaffer of ale, no doubt he would have approved of our celebrations today. Whatever our faults and differences, and they are hurled at us 24/7 in our age of incessant telecommunications. A whole lot of the planet would still like to pour into our land to experience what we Americans so often take for granted: the freedom to complain, to get furious with our government, to make as much money or seek as much celebrity as we can think up, the freedom to reproduce at will, the freedom to read anything we can lay our hands on, to dress and dance with abandon, and to worship (or not) pretty much as we please. The list goes on and on, despite our increased rules and regulations.
So why then did the Catholic and Episcopal churches in Dallas recently host the first-ever Symposium on Human Trafficking, #StopSlaveryDallas? Say what? We have slavery in Dallas, in Texas, in this country 150-plus years after the end of the Civil War? Surely this is the hyperbole of the media today.
Nope. Human trafficking is not to be confused with illegal immigrants coming across our borders after paying “mules” to sneak them across the Rio Grande. Human trafficking is a couple of things, but it is defined as “ongoing exploitation through force, fraud and coercion.” It is involuntary servitude to terrified, marginalized men, women, and children being held against their will often hiding in plain sight.
The mayor, police, immigration attorneys, and clergy addressed an overflow crowd in this first consciousness-raising effort this spring. The first category of slaves is the foreign workers seeking paid, advertised work opportunities that are bogus. Instead they are herded into offsite cheap, usually unsanitary housing, then beaten, starved, and intimidated into working menial agricultural jobs without ever seeing their promised money. They have had their papers confiscated, are threatened with harm to family, or threats of prison without any knowledge of their rights or language skills to question. They are trapped without hope. Many die.
Bill Bernstein, co-chair of Freedom Network USA, identified several other groups. Some migrant workers — upon discovery that the jobs for which they applied were merely bait for servitude — may be forced to work as nannies or manicurists also without being paid, having their paperwork taken away, and similarly threatened.
Begin to peruse the places you frequent and ask questions. One example given was of a boys choir from Zambia that performed around town but was locked into deplorable facilities by its sponsor, had its funds confiscated, and was threatened with harm to family members back home, then physically assaulted if the choristers complained. Another example given was of an exterminator in a home who noticed a woman hiding in the shadows. He called police, who later rescued an enslaved nanny from Indonesia.
A third group of those in peonage are Americans, mostly girls, sold into prostitution to support their drug habits or for money in low-income areas. Jeanne Phillips, a former U.S. ambassador and an advocate for New Friends New Life, estimates as many as 432 children a night are on the streets. There is a call to action to develop a symbol for faith-based organizations that would signal to anyone who is being violated that he or she could come in for rescue.
Then there is the sickest of all criminals: those who transport enslaved foreign children in vans from transient motels and cheap apartments from town to town, forcing them to engage in sex acts from those recruited from porn sites on the Internet. These children, from as far away as Southeast Asia, are either abducted or sold by their families and have no language skills when smuggled in.
It is estimated that there are anywhere from 25-35 million people on the planet who are in slavery. Some are in Dallas. They are in Texas. They are in our country in the shadows of the free. These are not illegal immigrants seeking citizenship. These are enslaved people in dark places in need of more than the illumination of fireworks.
So while we enjoy our holiday, let us remember why we were founded. There is work to be done in the land of the free.